- Stravinsky Seen and Heard by Hans Keller and Milein Cosman
Toccata Press, 127 pp, £5.95, March 1982, ISBN 0 907689 01 9
- Nadia Boulanger: A Life in Music by Léonie Rosenstiel
Norton, 427 pp, £16.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 393 01495 9
The husband-and-wife team of Hans Keller and Milein Cosman looks at Stravinsky in his later years from two very different points of view: on the one hand, that of the rational music critic and analyst; on the other, that of the subjective visual artist. Milein Cosman’s vigorous sketches, made during the composer’s visits to London between 1958 and 1965, occupy over half the book. Although there are more sketches than seems necessary, they capture marvellously the hunched, almost repressed posture characteristic of the composer (even as a younger man), and thus lend support to some of Keller’s psychological hypotheses. This physical attitude is all the more noticeable for its juxtaposition here with the crisp, refined figure of Jean Cocteau, a contrast which justifies Cocteau’s inclusion amongst the sketches far more compellingly than Cosman’s practical explanation that he was involved in a performance of Oedipus Rex. There is one eloquent and highly economical sketch in which Cocteau’s disdain for the chair on which he is sitting seems to reach beyond the physically possible. Alas, there is nothing quite so telling among the sketches of Stravinsky himself.
Keller’s contribution consists of 39 pages of original text, together with an article reprinted from Tempo (1955) which introduces a functional analysis of the central section of Stravinsky’s In Memoriam Dylan Thomas. The index to this material occupies a further four and a half pages, and contains such fascinating entries as ‘sadism, Webern’s in-turned’. The book is generally superlative in tone, and Keller’s fondness for verbal inflation leads him down some very dubious paths. Thus Webern is a ‘great minor master’, Stravinsky’s switch to serial composition is ‘the profoundest surprise in the history of music’, and his genius, finally, is not merely unique but ‘the uniquest of the lot’. Keller’s concern here, as elsewhere in his writings and his radio talks, is to convince us that we are in the presence of ideas of supreme importance which have inexplicably been overlooked or at least underrated by duller minds. In this particular case, the oversight is a failure by Stravinsky scholars to account psychologically for the composer’s espousal of serial technique in the teeth of his own very vocal hostility towards Schoenberg. This oversight, which might induce a sense of mild surprise in lesser men, leaves Keller ‘aghast’.
For Keller there are two kinds of music: namely, music and unmusic, the latter being the result of non-aural inspiration worked out according to non-aural principles – for example, a mathematically structured piece based on a note-row ‘selected’ for some particular quality such as angularity, in which the row will therefore tend to be unrecognisable in performance. Keller considers rhythm (and hence also melody) to be an indispensable adjunct of musical inspiration, and the list of 20th-century composers whom Keller considers to be ‘great’ – Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Britten and Skalkottas – only includes composers whose material is generally recognisable to the ear, no matter how complex the technical processes involved. (Readers whose favourite 20th-century composer has been left out of this list will search in vain for any clues as to what else, in Keller’s view, constitutes ‘greatness’. Yet the impression remains that he considers greatness to be a precisely measurable phenomenon.)
Vol. 5 No. 2 · 3 February 1983
SIR: Philip Booth’s review of Stravinsky Seen and Heard (LRB, 30 December 1982) is demonstrably incompetent: he literally does not know what he is talking about, with the result that he dispenses factual misinformation throughout his piece. Thus he talks about my ‘functional analysis of the central section of Stravinsky’s In Memoriam Dylan Thomas’. I hope none of your readers was rash enough to buy himself a copy of the book in order to examine this functional analysis, for it doesn’t exist. Any recent dictionary could have enlightened Mr Booth about the nature of functional analysis – a new method of musical analysis which I have introduced and named, and whose practitioners, apart from myself, are some of my pupils and followers. The analysis which Mr Booth so describes has absolutely nothing to do with it: it is a simple serial analysis of the kind every interested musician must have practised before I came in. In its purest form, I may add, functional analysis is written in notes, and therefore played, whereas a serial analysis cannot renounce the visual dimension.
About Mr Booth’s criticism of my conclusions we need not bother – for eminently functional reasons. Much of what he criticises was shown to Stravinsky long before his death; he responded speedily, in longhand: ‘Mr Keller is absolutely right.’
Philip Booth writes: I must apologise to Hans Keller for taking the name of functional analysis in vain. Perhaps he would care to point out further examples of the misinformation which he claims I have dispensed throughout my review. At the same time he could clarify for us exactly what Stravinsky believed him to be ‘absolutely right’ about; or was the composer merely indulging in a further display of that ‘hypocritical enthusiasm’ with which he patronised Keller on the occasion of their meeting – an occasion vividly described in Keller’s review of the Stravinsky correspondence? Hans Keller’s conclusions are in the nature of a subjective reconstruction of Stravinsky’s creative unconscious, and if he supposes that a hasty word from Stravinsky can place these conclusions beyond all criticism then he is absolutely wrong.
SIR: Anyone with a serious concern for music and musical criticism over the last thirty-odd years in Britain must feel an immense indebtedness to Hans Keller. But unfortunately, like many people who are, or think of themselves as, isolated voices, he has become recently, in your columns and in the Listener, shrill, ever more assertive, and now simply silly. His review of the first volume of Stravinsky’s Selected Correspondence, and of Paul Griffiths’s book on The Rake’s Progress, is especially painful reading. He begins with an idiotic remark: ‘the greater the genius the less there is of a causal connection between his life and his art.’ Of course there is always a causal connection, otherwise it wouldn’t be ‘his’ art. What Keller presumably means is that the causal connection is not a simple or straightforward one. But does anyone any longer think that it is? In Beethoven’s case, which Keller cites, he no doubt became ‘the communicator of profound, unmixed joy’ partly because of his own wretchedness. Causal connections are often rather complicated – a good deal more so even than in Beethoven’s case – in art as elsewhere.
Proceeding with no evident logic, Keller tells us that the answer to ‘whether Stravinsky the man is worth knowing about’ is ‘an unqualified no, unless one is childish enough to enjoy the coincidence, within one and the same mind, of supernormal art and moral subnormality’. But one’s attitude to that coincidence, if it exists in Stravinsky’s mind, may be one of unchildish fascination with what was in fact an exceptionally complex personality, as anyone who reads Robert Craft’s great book Stravinsky: The Chronicle of a Friendship should know. Nothing Keller quotes or refers to suggests to me that Stravinsky was morally subnormal, though the mixture in his character of generosity and meanness, warmth and chill, affection and vindictiveness – the specific mixture of these and many other qualities – is certainly remarkable. So, I find, is his capacity for expressing his views on music and musicians, and those views themselves, including his views on The Rake, as set down in Paul Griffiths’s book: Keller dismisses these as ‘exceptionally vapid’, but I know I’m not alone in finding that piece of writing exceptionally moving.
Stravinsky the man and writer of prose – the greatest English prose of our time, I think – having been given no shrift by Keller, he moves on to a paean to Auden’s musical perceptions, and refers to a day spent with him ‘discussing music all along’ as one of ‘my life’s weightiest days’. An hour out of that day was broadcast on Radio 3, and it was full of remarks like the one Keller quotes from Auden for our admiration: ‘No good opera plot can be sensible, for people do not sing when they are feeling sensible.’ The man who found ‘the homosexual triangle Mark-Melot-Tristan’ the centre of interest in Wagner’s masterpiece and summed up Wagner’s total achievement as the presentation, done with ‘consummate skill’, of ‘a series of underbred neurotics’ is lauded by Keller over the contributor to the supreme series of dialogues with Craft which Keller has high-handedly dismissed elsewhere.
The other major music review in the same number also warrants some comments. On Willi Schuh’s Richard Strauss: A Chronicle of the Early Years, Nicholas Spice remarks: ‘It was certain to be an important book. It deserved to be a great one.’ What does that mean? At any rate, Spice wants an explanation of Strauss’s capacity to write serene music as his world crumbled about him. Further trouble with causal connections. But what of Metamorphosen, Strauss’s lament for German culture, conveniently unmentioned by Spice? And what more natural than that so civilised (in a limited sense) a spirit should take refuge, by and large, in escapist works? Before venturing his explanation, Spice finds that ‘it’s worth dwelling a little on the reasons the purists hate Strauss.’ I’m not clear whether I’m a purist, since I don’t know what the word means in this context: but I have a fairly strong distaste for much Strauss, because of the in verse relationship in his music between its quality and its pretensions to depth and sublimity. It’s not in the least a matter of Strauss being ‘not sufficiently political’, nor is it to be attributed to the need for ‘an inexorable drive forward’ in musical history, but of his spiritual vulgarity. If one accepts, as all the evidence suggests, that Strauss was an homme moyen sensuel, then Spice needn’t furrow his brow. ‘The fear and tearfulness that hover in the eyes of so many of the portraits’ are for me non-existent. I see only blankness. Spice professes to discern ‘Strauss unaccommodated’ in what he calls ‘the Emperor’s long area in Act Two, Scene Two of Die Frau ohne Schatten’. All I can find is Strauss carrying on, as so often, in the hope that an evocation – such as Wagner could achieve in a couple of bars – of anguish and tornness would eventually emerge. It couldn’t, if you were Strauss. When he is effective, as he is not in Frau, it is by his impact on the nerves, as in Elektra, where the sheer unremitting din finally has one quailing. Spice should rest content with the Four Last Songs, in which Strauss showed, with all his incomparable technical resources, how someone virtually incapable of deep feeling could calmly accept the imminence of death, as undisturbed by the prospect of oblivion as he had been by almost everything else, and for once not trying to fake. Why conjure up complexities and torments for someone who was so enviably free of them?
Corpus Christi College, Cambridge
Vol. 5 No. 4 · 3 March 1983
SIR: Philip Booth’s mention of Nadia Boulanger’s opposition to Schoenberg and his circle (LRB, 30 December 1982) brings to mind the fact that the other side did not show much sympathy for her either. It must be Nadia Boulanger of whom Theodor Adorno thinks when in the Introduction to his Philosophie der Neuen Musik he mentions ‘die quicken Zöglinge der pädagogischen Statthalterin Strawinskys’. The point is unfortunately lost in the English translation by Mitchell and Blomster (Philosophy of Modern Music, London 1973, page 7) where the clause reads quite incorrectly as ‘the facile pupils of Stravinsky’s pedagogical supervision’. Adorno’s involved and cryptic German would be better translated as ‘the nifty pupils of the lady who is Stravinsky’s pedagogical deputy’.
Magdalen College, Oxford